Reviews of three novellas published by DarkFuse that originally appeared in Black Static #51:-
David Bernstein’s RELIC OF DEATH (DarkFuse eBook, 99pp, $2.99) opens with hitmen Sal and Bruno returning from a woodland body dump. When their car breaks down they stumble across an isolated cabin in the woods with unusual security in place and decide to go in for a little recreational breaking and entering. Inside they find a locked safe containing a briefcase filled with diamonds, which ultimately proves the truth of the old saying about honour among thieves. The briefcase passes through various people’s hands, including junkie Henry, down on her luck Sandra, and peeping tom building supervisor Max, granting each what they secretly desire, but with unforeseen and fatal consequences, before finding its way back to Keeper Joel.
There’s not a lot to be said about this story. It’s the cursed object template reinvented along the lines of Schnitzler’s La Ronde with bloody death in lieu of sexual liaisons. I could have done with more about the history of the Relic, how it came to end up in Joel’s possession, who had it before him and how long has the tradition of Keepers lasted down the years, but Bernstein sketches in only the minimum information required. His character studies of the various members of the story’s cast are well done. Sal and Bruno are friends and rivals, with very different approaches to their profession, while Sandra is a victim of misogyny, and Max an obvious perpetrator of the same and deeply unsavoury. In each case the Relic takes their natural resentments and fears and amplifies them to the point that they will undertake behaviour that would normally not occur to them, as with one character killing his abusive wife. It’s done well, but at the same time all rather simplistic, a story that entertains and does nothing more than that, which is probably the author’s intention, though I felt something was lacking, such as a reason for what takes place, a point or purpose to it all beyond giving Joel a replacement Keeper to train. It’s like putting the Holy Grail (the anti-Grail in this case) in a story, and using it to do nothing except drink out of. I liked what we got, but felt the story could have benefited from a greater ambition and scope.
In BLOODEYE (DarkFuse eBook, 119pp, $2.99) by Craig Saunders, plumber Keane Reid is summoned to a pub with a flooded basement, where he finds the corpse of a murdered woman nailed to the wall, with a third eye carved into her forehead. It is a reminder of events that took place seven years ago, when he was a police scene of crime photographer, and bore witness to a similar atrocity, only to find that his wife then became a target for the killer. Keane couldn’t save Teresa, but with the help of her spirit he was able to overcome the entity he refers to as Brother Shadow, a demonic creature that lives in his shadow. But now, in the wake of a heat wave, it appears that Brother Shadow is back and Keane must once again confront his nemesis, only this time it will take the ultimate sacrifice on his part.
Fast paced, with over fifty very short chapters, the longest probably only three pages, this is a riveting read. There is more than enough gore to satisfy those who enjoy such aspects of horror fiction, with atrocities taking centre stage at critical moments in the text. And the Norwich setting is convincingly realised on the page, with places that I know personally brought to believable life. At heart, once you get beyond the supernatural elements, what we have is a story of a man trying to keep his sanity in the face of impossible odds, a man who has lost everything, including the woman he loves above all else, and blames himself for doing so (and, with references to medication, Saunders keeps open the possibility that this may all be down to a psychotic break). Central to Keane’s psyche is the act of running, a thread and imagery that moves through the book, with the shift from running away to running towards the threat a pivotal moment. Similarly there is a subtext about love, how Keane needs Teresa’s guidance and reminders of their past love to conquer the evil, whether it be something external or a part of himself. Only one thing let the novella down – the implication that these characters exist in a vacuum, that the pair have no friends or family who will ask questions when Teresa apparently disappears, that her death will have no real world consequences other than the psychological effect on Keane. It’s something I felt should have been touched on and explained a bit more, but other than that minor quibble this was a thoroughly entertaining and engaging read, and I look forward to seeing more by this author, as he obviously has an original voice and stories to tell.
While Bernstein and Saunders are both new to me, Greg Gifune is an old favourite and OASIS OF THE DAMNED (DarkFuse eBook, 75pp, $2.99) does not disappoint. Heather Richter bails out of a helicopter in a remote corner of the Sahara. She is found by Owens who takes her to a ruined fort built beside an oasis. Owens tells her that he has been there for several weeks after his own plane crashed, and the others in his party were killed by the hordes of ravenous ghouls that attack the outpost every night. Disbelieving at first, Richter is convinced by what takes place as soon as darkness falls, joining in with Owens as he slaughters the ghouls, who just keep coming. The fort is well supplied with weapons and food left by previous occupants, such as the French Foreign Legion, and American and German forces from World War II, but all the same it seems inevitable that they will eventually be overrun, a dilemma that calls for desperate measures, an escape plan in which they must risk all.
Quite simply, this is a brilliant novella, one of the best that I read in 2015, if not the very best. It can be taken at face value, with two ex-soldiers engaged in a desperate battle against overwhelming odds, and as far as that goes Gifune gives us plenty of bang for our buck, with graphically described scenes of carnage and mayhem, enough to challenge the blood splatter skills of a Tom Savini. Woven into the narrative are details of the local legends and folklore, Gifune using these to prop up and give credibility to his concept of the ghouls, or in Arabic ghuls (demons), though for all realistic intents and purposes they seem like nothing so much as a zombie army. The bleakness of the setting is conveyed well, with relentless heat a factor in what is taking place, albeit minimalist, Gifune using it simply as a backdrop for the human drama that is playing out centre stage.
And it’s in this aspect that the author’s genius emerges, as we are told Richter’s back story and learn of the guilt she feels at not being present to help her younger brother, a victim of bullying. A further revelation hints that everything taking place is a psychodrama being played out inside Richter’s skull, the last gasp of the consciousness of a dying woman, or perhaps her personal vision of hell. In this scheme of things, karma is a bastard; Richter has lessons to learn and will be doomed to repeat them until she is ready to move on, with central to the story the conversations she has with her mother about death and the morality of war, the reasons we have to kill and die. Rather like a merger of Triangle and those jackal headed hordes from The Mummy 2, this is a splendid work of horror fiction, one that doesn’t stint on the gore effects and thrills, but with a hard moral core that elevates it above so much of what the genre has to offer. I loved it.
DarkFuse also do limited edition hardcover and paperback editions of some of their books, so if you’re a reader who prefers their fiction to come in non-electronic format, check out the publisher’s website (darkfuseshop.com) to see what’s available.